“It was me seeing that I was broke, and they were broken – that I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”
Boarding a train for California in 1947, John Perkins told himself he would never return to Mississippi. The then 16-year-old held nothing but contempt for white oppressors, religion, and the South he was leaving behind.
“Are you black or white?” Perkins asked over the phone as we planned an interview and discussed a prior connection. “That doesn’t matter. I love both black and white people. I’m just trying to get a picture to remember who you are,” he added after the question was answered.
The next day, things are peaceful at the Spencer Perkins Center in Jackson. Christmas lights hang from the roof, bells twirl under the building’s welcome sign, and his daughter Elizabeth sits inside prepping more holiday decorations. Perkins, now 83, is slender and has a kind face. Donning his usual ascot and sports coat combo, he could easily pass for 70. The aura around him is as imitable as the man himself.
Before we begin, he again asks me to tell him how I know him. Several years ago, not long before she died from cancer, Perkins came and prayed with my mother in a Jackson hospital. “Now you’re here, and we’re sharing this fellowship. Isn’t that something?” Perkins asks with a smile.
Now seated at a picnic table, Perkins tells the story of a life dedicated to his ministry of racial reconciliation and community development.
Perkins was born to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers in 1930 and grew up working on plantations in New Hebron. His mother, Maggie Perkins, died of pellagra, a vitamin B3 deficiency, when he was only 7 months old. Abandoned by his father, Perkins and older brother, Clyde, were two of the six Perkins children their grandmother was able to keep.
At this time, King Cotton’s reign began to fade and left only white anger in its absence. Clyde was then drafted to serve in World War 2. He fought in Germany and returned after the war with a Purple Heart and a lower tolerance for mistreatment from whites.
One Saturday in 1946 outside a local movie theater, a Mendenhall deputy marshal yelled at Clyde to quiet down and then struck him from behind with a club. An angry Clyde grabbed the club as the marshal went to hit him a second time. The marshal then stepped back and shot Clyde twice in the stomach. The closest hospital was over an hour and a half away in Jackson, and he died later that night.
In the months that followed, some family members told Perkins he should leave town. The Perkins family was known as a rebellious one, and John was no exception. “I had never accepted the myth that I was a nigger,” said Perkins.
Fearing he might retaliate and meet the same fate as his brother, his aunt and uncle put together enough money to send him to the west cost to start a new life. When Perkins arrived in California, he was determined to live the life he thought he deserved. He believed this relied on economic success and found a job on a Union Pacific Foundry assemble line. He worked alongside white workers and took home the same pay of 98 cents an hour.
Even after ramping up production tenfold, the workers wages stayed the same. Outraged, Perkins led a successful strike that gained the workers both higher pay and benefits. This exposed him to the power of organized political action and has stuck with him throughout his life.
In a visit back home in 1949, Spencer went to a service at Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. Church was the only way to socialize at that time. Afterwards he spotted Vera Mae and was immediately smitten. He told her that he would marry her one day. She didn’t answer either way to his proposal.
After his return to California, they spent the next two years writing each other. In 1951, Perkins was drafted for the Korean War, and they decided to get married after he finished basic training. The newlyweds were only able to spend two weeks together in California before Perkins went back to camp and was shipped overseas.
In January of 1953, Perkins was discharged. He and Vera Mae then moved to Monrovia, California. Their first son, Spencer, was born in 1954. As a toddler, he started going to Bible classes at a church down the road. Perkins remembers that he would come home with a smile on his face, singing hymns like “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world.”
Seeing the joy these classes brought Spencer peaked Perkins’ curiosity. After being asked by Spencer repeatedly to attend, Perkins went with him, and in time, opened up to the idea that God could exist for a black man.
In Mississippi, Perkins had only known the Church in the context of Southern exploitation. The white Church served as a justification for white supremacy. The black Church relied heavily on emotion, and yet still refused to speak or act on the brutality its members faced. He saw religious people as weak-willed and the Bible as a ridiculous fiction.
After his initial exposure with Spencer, Perkins accepted the invitation from a friend to attend another church and join an adult Bible study. He spent the next few months studying his Bible and was inspired by what he found, particularly the dedication of the apostle Paul. Then one Sunday in November of 1957, he made the decision to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.
With his newfound faith, Perkins immediately began preaching in nearby neighborhoods. Soon after, he and Vera Mae started teaching daily child evangelism classes and attending leadership workshops. In these workshops, he befriended white Christians who had been similarly impacted by the gospel. This marked the beginning of a lifelong shift in his ministry.
“I was fortunate that it was both black and white folks discipling me,” he said. “Coming from Mississippi, I valued this new birth and discipleship that was higher than race even at that time.”
In 1958, Perkins became an ordained Baptist minister and began preaching at black and white churches. He soon began to feel called back to the South to minister to blacks who were still facing the same problems he’d left behind.
In 1960, with their fifth child on the way, Perkins and Vera Mae left the stability and success they’d found in California and moved back to New Hebron. Their focus was on youth-oriented ministry. After six months, they moved to Mendenhall to continue these efforts that included Bible classes in public schools and tent meetings for the entirety of Simpson County.
The philosophy of Perkins’ ministry wasn’t immediately accepted by the established religious community in Mendenhall. While wanting to address the black community’s spiritual needs, he also saw the need to focus on economic problems and community development.
In 1964, Perkins founded Voice of Calvary ministries, named after the California church that financed the startup. Voice of Calvary has touched countless lives in the communities it serves. Just one of them is Tony Mckinnis, 59, of Jackson.
Mckinnis moved from Maryland to Mississippi when he was 17. Angry over the forced move, the young man was headed down a dark path until he was befriended by the Perkins family. Seeing Perkins achieve such status despite his circumstances inspired Mckinnis. Despite never finishing the third grade, Perkins holds 14 honorary doctorate degrees, has written 10 books, and speaks all over the continental U.S.
“I would not have made it here if it weren’t for them,” Mckinnis said. “It makes you believe that it doesn’t take a man to exalt you. If God wants you exalted, he’ll exalt you. That’s what I got from watching this man.”
While he was aware of the politics of the time, Perkins was initially reluctant to become directly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. That began to change in 1963 when he heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Inspired by King and desiring equality for his now six children, Perkins dramatically increased the range of his ministry and political efforts over the next few years.
Throughout 1965-1967, Perkins led efforts to promote black voter registration. Perkins’ goal was to challenge the white establishment, and the black vote became a real political force in Simpson County. Perkins also heralded desegregation in 1967 when he enrolled his son Spencer as the first black student at Mendenhall High School.
Continuing his push for racial equality, Perkins organized a boycott of white-owned stores in Mendenhall in the fall of 1969, due to their resistance to desegregation. Voice of Calvary also expanded to developing low-income housing. The growing influence of the black community inspired more tension and anger from white people. The worst night of Perkins’ life, and the most radical transformation of his ministry, was just around the corner.
Students from Tougaloo College and Jackson State University organized a protest against police brutality on February 7, 1970. The protest was in response to a young black man being beaten up by police for asking a white woman for a date. Police set a trap for marchers once they crossed into Rankin County. Many students, and Perkins himself, were arrested and brought to the Brandon County Jail. Perkins would not leave before being tortured within an inch of his life.
Perkins said Sheriff Jonathan Edwards, along with a mixture of deputy sheriffs and highway patrolman, spent the entire night beating Perkins unconscious multiple times. Their cool down from this exercise was taking turns drinking moonshine out of paper cups.
The beating only stopped when word came through that the FBI might be stopping by. Fearing any real consequence for their brutality, Perkins said they dragged him to his feet and forced him to mop his own blood off the jail cell floor. When that visit didn’t come through, they made up for lost time by beating him more viciously than before.
Never before had Perkins felt the kind of anger he did that night. “If I’d had some sort of atomic grenade, I’d have set it off killing both white and black,” said Spencer.
The nightmare didn’t end until the next day. Perkins was only released after a local friend posted her property as his bond. The torture has left Perkins with lifelong scars. Nearly two-thirds of his stomach had to be removed afterwards due to trauma and ulcers that formed. He also suffered a heart attack afterwards. The white-controlled appeal process led him to plead guilty to a reduced charge with no fine or jail time.
Later, when reflecting on that night, Perkins realized his ministry was incomplete, and that being a follower of Jesus required him to be better.
“It was me seeing that I was broke and they were broken,” he said. “That I needed to preach a gospel that was bigger than white hate and black hate.”
In 1971, Perkins moved and expanded Voice of Calvary in Jackson. There he developed the new philosophy of his ministry, the “three Rs” — relocation, redistribution and reconciliation. This new ministry focused on the ways racism had degraded both the black and white communities.
Perkins continued to lead the thriving Voice of Calvary Ministries until he and Vera Mae moved back to California in 1982. There he established the Harambee Christian Family Center and the John Perkins Foundation. Their efforts serve many areas of cummunity need including: healthcare, tutoring and low-income housing.
Perkins’ son Spencer suffered a heart attack and died in 1998. To honor his memory, Perkins and Vera Mae made their final move back to Jackson After buying the land Spencer had owned, they built their home and the Spencer Perkins Center next door. It has developed multiple youth programs since its inception and recently launched a mentoring program.
Things were never easy for the Perkins family. It even took his children a long time to understand and embrace the family ministry. His oldest daughter, Elizabeth Perkins, originally planned on becoming a doctor. Last year, she and her two sisters became co-presidents of the John and Vera Mae Perkins Foundation.
Though Perkins is shifting away from some of the more active leadership duties in the JVMPF, he still plan on writing and speaking. He’s currently in the process of writing what he says is his last book “One Blood: Final Words To The Church On Race.”
“I’m not going out with my head in the sand,” said Perkins.